On Marjane Satrapi’s Early #MeToo Novel
How Embroideries Reveals the Power of Women's Stories
“To speak behind others’ backs is the ventilator of the heart,” Marjane Satrapi’s grandmother says with a smile, teacup in hand, as she prepares to gossip and argue with a group of other Iranian women in Embroideries, a slender graphic novel by Satrapi first published in 2003 in the style of her renowned autobiographical comic bildungsroman, Persepolis. Later, as one of the women bursts into tears upon being reminded, by the other stories, of her own long-kept-secret objectification and defrauding by an avaricious ex-husband, the grandmother says to “[l]et her air out her heart. There’s nothing better than talking.” “I’ve been keeping it to myself for so long,” the woman assents.
With its suggestion that releasing long-entombed secrets about bad experiences with toxic men is therapeutic, the scene is typical of Satrapi’s far-ranging, playfully risqué comic, which features a collection of Iranian women speaking with each other about their tortured and torturous histories with men—some traumatic, some comedic, some didactic, all in need of being ventilated from the inside—some experiences of which they have never shared with anyone else. They converse in a woman-only space. Male characters in the present appear only to briefly leave the scene, on the first page, and to leave again, at the end, as one slumberous husband tries waltzing into the women’s conversation and is told to go back to sleep. Though they are speaking behind the backs of the men their stories usually revolve around, Satrapi’s women are releasing their narratives to each other.
I first saw the slim book, unexpectedly, in a Foyles bookstore after getting off the London Underground at Waterloo Station. Its mauve-dark cover—a purple background, in front of which women in black stand and smile at the reader—immediately tugged at me. One of the distaff contingent in the foreground was Satrapi’s grandmother from Persepolis, which was no coincidence: Embroideries is part of the autobiography-as-comic universe of Persepolis and can be read, ergo, as a spin-off chapter or companion book, though it also stands on its own, able to be read with ease even by someone unfamiliar with Persepolis. Although both follow Marji, a young girl who represents the author, Persepolis was more clearly Marji’s coming-of-age narrative, whereas in Embroideries, none of the women is really at the center, as all of their stories hold equal weight, and Marji takes on the more perspectivally egalitarian role of listener and occasional speaker.
For years, I taught Embroideries to undergrads in a Global Literature class. We talked about depictions of Iran, Orientalism, sexuality, cults of virginity, and the way that comics, like text, arguably have their own language, their own unique way to be consumed as artistic medium, old as our earliest paintings on cave walls.
A few weeks ago, when I offered to loan Embroideries to my partner, I realized Satrapi’s little comic had taken on a new meaning: as an embodiment of certain principles of the #MeToo movement. Satrapi’s women were sharing their stories of both pleasure and abuse at the hands of a patriarchal system—abuse they could talk about only amongst themselves—and standing up, if sometimes humorously, to lecherous, deceitful men. Its varied women—bold, naïve, experienced, wry—challenge an old Orientalist trope of “Eastern” women being presented solely as sly seductresses, passive souls, or women who are victims and nothing else. The book suddenly seemed like it could, if perhaps with some expansions, have been written today as a paean to the power of women sharing their stories. To the way abuse takes many forms, all requiring condemnation. To the therapeutic power of spaces where we can reveal, finally, the horror stories we have kept interred inside us. The unassuming comic was a panegyric to why our hearts need ventilation.
“Satrapi’s women were sharing their stories of both pleasure and abuse at the hands of a patriarchal system—abuse they could talk about only amongst themselves—and standing up, if sometimes humorously, to lecherous, deceitful men.”
When we do not share our painful stories, they begin to take up space inside us, forcing us to cross their paths, like cemetery ghosts, even when we least expect to see or recall them. Our stories, bottled up with dirt and buried, grow larger, form little mausoleums around them, and then begin to sprawl and roam inside us. We begin to live with a palatial necropolis of the past in us, where such silent stories live without living. The stories occupy more of our plots until we open up and let them out, yet even then, a piece of their trauma remains, clinging, as it may always, to us. Trauma needs ventilation, even when we think we are doing fine by bottling it all up. A heart we don’t air out becomes filled with our ghosts, until we have no more room in us to put them, and we begin to fail and fall under all that invisible, silently howling pressure.
In part, Satrapi’s title describes the weaving of these women’s pasts into narratives. Yet the cute title and warm countenances on the cover are also, using a specialized meaning of “embroidery,” a façade. As the book explains midway through, Satrapi’s title refers to a hymenoplasty, or surgical reconstruction of the hymen, to re-simulate virginity. While embroideries are by no means recent surgical discoveries—“revirginizing” procedures, with some variation, have existed for centuries in a variety of patriarchal virginity-prizing societies—the operation has become particularly associated with Iran, such that by the 1970s, the anthropologist Janet Bauer was able to declare that hymenoplasties were “one of the most sought-after procedures” in Tehran; embroideries were condemned by more hardline conservatives after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, yet in spite of—or perhaps because of—such castigation, they became even more highly sought-after. The more contemporary version of the reflowering procedure may be bundled with gelatin capsules bearing red dye, which will burst during sexual intercourse, creating the effect of blood.
The body and its history can be rewoven, like a doll; to be acceptable to men who see most women as the fruitful offerings of a cult of virginity, such surgeries suggest, the body and its history must be rewoven, or you are damaged goods, a thing come irreparably unspooled and undone. It sounds charming, even vaguely kawaii, to say, I’m going to get an embroidery; most of all, it sounds mundane, as if it is an operation you might buy in a department store or supermarket. Anything can come to seem normal, even dull and sublunary, by using gentle, pretty-enough language.
In its focus on women’s bodies and its explicit presentation of a wide barometric range of sexuality—painful, pleasurable, vindictive, ambivalent—Satrapi’s novel anticipated, in some ways, the goals of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which Machado elaborated on in an interview from January with Stephanie Cross for The Guardian. “Women’s bodies—and what they are subject to—seem to be central to this collection,” Cross began their conversation, to which Machado replied that this centrality was indeed “something very personally important to me, which I think a lot about. It’s weird,” she continued, “because people keep saying it’s so relevant right now, but our bodies have been oppressed for all of human history.” Cross then asked Machado for the “secret” to her sex scenes seeming so concrete and credible. The simple “secret,” Machado revealed, was “[l]etting some sex scenes be pleasurable, letting bodies be real.” A compelling collection of erotic scenes, then, is one that allows sex to be enjoyable and lets bodies be as multifarious as they are in real life.
To be sure, Satrapi’s comic fails to include any explicitly queer women, unlike Machado, forcing Embroideries to orbit around the more conventional narrative sun of heterosexual, cisgender sexuality. Still, both books revel in the body and argue, importantly, for pleasure, for bodies that are as much parties—people—as festivals—parties in another, more ecstatic sense.
The book begins at the end of dinner. Almost immediately, “the men left as usual to take a nap, and the rest of us, the women, started to clean up.” This sets the stage for a conversation between and about women; the ribald talk to come is anything but “clean,” as certain more prudish students informed me, yet it is also a cleaning, cleansing conversation in another sense, a sexual and social catharsis for the women now that the men are off snoring. Marji prepares the samovar to make tea. “Everyone,” Satrapi writes, “gathered around this drink in order to devote themselves to their favorite activity: discussion.” As the tea steeps, the women clean. When Marji finally brings out the long-awaited libation, the women cheer. “And in this way,” she writes, “we began a long session of a ventilation of the heart.”
The first tale is cutting in multiple ways. It follows a woman named Nahid who comes to Marji’s grandmother in tears about having lost her virginity “three weeks before her wedding” to a man she does not love; Nahid had fallen for someone else, and when she went to see him, they ended up unexpectedly having sex. “My husband will know that I’m no longer a virgin!” she sobs. “Everyone will know! My father will kill me!” She begs for help. After a night of mulling it over, Marji’s grandmother, who had by then already divorced her first husband and thus “had experience,” provides Nahid with a razor, which she is advised to place between her thighs “[t]he night of the honeymoon” so that if she squeezes her thighs together and “cr[ies] out very, very loudly” at just the right time, she will nick herself enough to create “a few drops of blood.” “He’ll be proud of his virility,” the grandmother says, “and you’ll keep your honor intact.” Unsurprisingly, with a razor at her crotch, she ends up cutting more than herself; her unfortunate suitor finds neither his own virility nor honor intact. “Not only was he misled about the merchandise,” the grandmother smirks, “but on top of that he found himself with a sliced testicle!” The women burst out laughing, even as the toxic mores about virginity and womanhood at the story’s heart are terrifying. Laughter, here as elsewhere, becomes a method to minimize trauma.
“Perhaps the way a body survives its traumas is by telling them.”
In one story, a woman embraces being a mistress rather than a wife. In another, a man openly cheats in front of his wife, yet seems shocked, insulated by his own sense that he can do whatever he wants as a man, when she leaves him. Women have sex when they don’t want to, simply because power-drunk men require it. Embroideries become so common that it seems impossible, the grandmother says, to tell who is “really” a virgin, rendering them at once vestiges of conservative virginity-as-worth traditionalism and, ironically, perhaps one foil to that very notion.
To some degree, Satrapi is protected from the terrors some of the women relate by virtue of her parents’ wealth and liberal politics, both of which Persepolis more fully explores. But the young Satrapi here is learning, being steeped, as it were, in the samovar of these stories.
Embroideries’ embrace of women’s liberty and of diverse experience reflects a broader trend in Satrapi’s oeuvre. In 2005, the same year Embroideries first appeared in English translation, Satrapi published a controversial graphic blog post for The New York Times on her refusal to stop smoking cigarettes. “I Don’t Want to Stop Smoking,” the title bluntly declared. (Cigarettes feature prominently in her work, like her film adaption of her own 2004 graphic novel, Chicken in Plums; there is a symbolic language of smoking in both her work and in films she loves like Casablanca, and knowing what these atmospheric touches mean helps subtly emotionally demystify certain scenes in her narratives.) Little paintings and sketches break up blocks of text, the first image recalling the brightly attired, pensively lounging women of Itzchak Tarkay.
The blog divided readers. Many of Satrapi’s arguments are specious—she even invokes the widely debunked idea that video games cause violence and should thus be more concerning than cigarettes—yet her wider point has a simple, hedonistic appeal: that one should indulge in even the pleasures we know will hurt us, if we accept their risks. “Unfortunately,” she writes at the end, “we are living in a world that rejects all notion of pleasure . . . Smoking is an invitation to cancer. But, above all, smoking is a pleasure. I know,” she finishes, “that this thing that has given me pleasure for decades may finally kill me. I accept that.” Satrapi ignores the interpersonal dangers of second- and third-hand smoke, which greatly reduces the efficacy of her closing argument, but her thesis nonetheless makes sense when it comes to understanding the significance of pleasure-seeking and liberty-protecting in her art. In a 2012 interview, she revealed that she had informed students at Madison in Wisconsin that they “should be out drinking vodka and living while you can still bounce back the next morning and be fine”; some students in their twenties, she noted, then in her forties, seemed “older” than she was by virtue of their relatively puritanical restraints.
Certain pleasures are inescapably of the evening: lit brightly, for a moment, before the night erases their flames, and we with them. But perhaps it’s worth it, Satrapi says, if we accept the mundane Faustian bargains of the things that briefly kindle our joy. The body can be many parties, even if some will kill us.
To speak out and act, the Iranian journalist, editor, and author Habibe Jafarian argues in a piece for Guernica I also taught alongside Embroideries, is to learn to be “my own woman, but also my own man.” (Simple gender roles aside, there is great power in this.) Reveal, if with fear and trembling, so you can learn to fear and obey less. Embroider our pasts into clear designs, Satrapi suggests, so they will never be forgotten, but, instead, handed down to other women, who will learn, too, to weave the tales they sadly also have, and ventilate their heart, so they live, storyteller become survivor.
If Scheherazade—the protagonist of A Thousand and One Nights, who, to stave off a murderous misogynistic king, tells him a new story each night so that he puts off killing her to see how the story ends the next night, and the next—is made a verb, it means to tell stories to survive, to write to live. Perhaps the way a body survives its traumas is by telling them.
We Scheherazade, to live.